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MONGOLIAN, July 13, China Daily - On a sweltering afternoon in the Alashan desert, in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, several Mongolian herdsmen dug holes in the sand, sowing saxaul seeds and pouring large buckets of water into the holes.

For them, these seeds will not only help counter desertification in the area, but also represent their hopes of making money.

The plants are part of the Seagate Ecological Forest Program started by Seagate Technology, one of the world's largest manufacturers of hard disk drives, and the China Green Foundation. The forestry bureau of the city of Alashan League is calling for local herders to join the project by planting 66.7 hectares of saxaul forests in the Gobi desert. "It's a transformation from ecological forests to economic forests," said Huang Hong, vice-director of the foundation's enterprise cooperation department.

Unlike traditional afforestation projects, Seagate's program will bring economic benefits to the local herders because they will also plant the precious traditional Chinese medicine, desert cistanche, also known as "ginseng of the desert", which live as a parasite on the saxaul roots. "Our programs are improving over the years. The locals will be more active to maintain the plants if they get economic benefits," Huang said.

Alashan Plateau is known as one of the cradles of sandstorms in China, and sandstorms that originate in Alashan often strike parts of North China, such as Beijing.

According to Qiao Yongxiang, vice-director of the forestry bureau of Alashan League, saxaul grows very well in the Gobi desert because it has cusp-like leaves, can resist wind and sand and prevent sandstorms. It grows widely in deserts such as those in Spain, Portugal and Turkey. The bureau's staff will guide herders to plant saxaul, which only needs watering three times a year. Saxaul seedlings are very cheap but it's expensive to water them because water has to be transported by truck from about 20 kilometers away in the urban area of Alashan. The cost for watering one hectare of saxaul is about 900 yuan ($144).

If the seedlings fail to survive, the forestry bureau’s staff will try to ascertain why and plant more. When the saxaul reaches maturity three years later, the herders will be able to plant desert cistanche besides it.

They need to use the saxaul branches to cut off the desert cistanche later, which grows deep and long under the sand. About 6 kilograms of fresh desert cistanche makes 1 kilogram of dried, which sells for about 170 yuan. The Chinese herb is used to make dishes including soup or soaked in white liquor, and is used as a kidney tonic, to protect the liver and minimize the effects of electronic radiation.

"It's a win-win and sustainable project to raise the income of the local residents and improve the climate. As in Alashan, the foundation's ecological programs often choose plants that are adaptable to the local environments, for example, growing tea in Guizhou province," Huang said. She said it will take three to five years to finish phase one of the project, and economic benefits will come at that time. The process is subject to annual precipitation.

Alashan League has been planting saxaul and desert cistanche for several years. It has about 20,000 hectares of similar bases for both plants, with an annual yield of 993 metric tons of dried desert cistanche. In 2013, the China Wild Plant Conservation Association named Alashan League the hometown of desert cistanche.

"We've been promoting the mode of saxaul and desert cistanche bases in Alashan League, with the aim of an increase of 13,333 hectares every year. Alashan's rich resources will help its development of forest and sand industry," Qiao said.

The bureau has three kinds of ecological programs, he added. Some are open for public bids so experienced companies can help reforest the Gobi desert, and the bureau's staff will later maintain the forests. Some NGOs and enterprises such as Seagate have launched forestation projects in Alashan. Individual residents also plant saxaul, and will get some compensation from government.

"As more and more enterprises and herders join such ecological programs, I believe Alashan's climate will be improved and living standards of local residents will be enhanced," Qiao said.

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